EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The blades of grass were wedged in Eli Manning’s facemask, his helmet sitting askew on his head.
His shoulder pads stuck out of his mud-stained jersey, forcing him to stuff them back in.
It was the aftermath of yet another vicious pummeling the quarterback took Sunday on the road to the NFC championship and the Giants’ second trip to the Super Bowl in five seasons.
But Manning bounced right back up again and again in that fourth quarter, no matter how hard the San Francisco 49ers hit him. And he kept making plays, leading his team to a 20-17 overtime victory and a berth in Super Bowl XLVI.
The display was just the latest example of how Manning, 31, has separated himself in his eighth season, becoming the elite quarterback he declared himself to be in training camp.
“I think he has evolved into an unbelievable player,” left tackle David Diehl said.
Manning has become a symbol of the resiliency of the Giants (12-7), who will face Tom Brady — on whose level Manning said he belongs — and the New England Patriots in Indianapolis on Feb. 5 in a rematch of their epic Super Bowl XLII battle.
Some of Manning’s teammates talked in the locker room Sunday night about his toughness. Others talked about his leadership or his ability to not get rattled.
But all walked away impressed after he threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns despite the pounding he withstood.
The 49ers sacked him six times. They knocked him down 12 times. They hit him 20 times.
But he never stopped, never changed his game plan, often holding the football until the very last moment — knowing a big hit likely was coming — just to give his receivers one more second to get open.
“He just always plays above his character — what people may think of him,” said receiver Victor Cruz. “He’s getting hit. He’s getting up, brushing himself off and just plugging away onto the next play.
“He’s just a great quarterback, and I wouldn’t want any other guy under the helm.”
Manning admitted Monday that he was a bit sore — but in his typical, understated manner.
“There are some weeks when you’re happy you have two weeks until the next game,” he said during his weekly radio spot on ESPN-AM.
Manning led the NFL in interceptions last season. He carried that with him this season, he admitted, using it as motivation.
Just like the Giants — who were 7-7 and on playoff life support just one month ago — carry the words of their doubters with them to the biggest stage in American sports.
“We have such great trust in him,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said in a conference call. “He stands in there and he’ll take the blows. He’ll get right back up.”
Manning just wins.
He became the first quarterback in NFL history Sunday to record five playoff road victories. And he continues to display quiet toughness, having made 129 consecutive starts — the longest active streak among quarterbacks.
Manning will bring all that to Indianapolis — home of his brother Peyton’s Colts — one victory away from sealing his legacy with a second Super Bowl championship.
“It doesn’t matter to me where we’re playing or the fact that it’s in Indianapolis,” he said. “I’m just excited that we’re in one.”
Manning had a career year in the regular season. But he has elevated his play even higher in the playoffs.
In the Giants’ three postseason playoff victories — at home against the Falcons and at the Packers and 49ers — he has completed 61.8 percent of his passes (76-of-123) for 923 yards and eight touchdowns.
“We give him a lot of grief about his dorky appearance and he doesn’t look like he has been in a weight room ever,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “But that guy is tough.”